High-tech meets custom home office furniture
September 7, 2020 | 10:04 am CDT
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As millions were forced to work from home in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, that prompted a huge demand for home office furniture, but people also found they couldn’t just order what they needed and have it delivered to their door.

Many custom woodworking shops have tried to address that demand, but a new program combines augmented reality with distributed manufacturing to deliver custom home office furniture in just two weeks.

Leland Thomasset of Taghkanic Woodworking in Pawling, New York, is the design engineer and a partner in the project, which sells furniture under the brand name HelloBaru or just Baru.

Leland Thomasset is the design engineer for Baru and works with shops across the country to use their excess CNC capacity to manufacture the furniture.

Customers go to the company’s website (hellobaru.com) to see product offerings. Then they can use a sophisticated augmented reality function to view the furniture in their own home and even resize it to fit exactly where they want it, using their phone, tablet or another device.

"HelloBaru is a platform where customers across the country look at our catalog of furnishings and sit-to-stand desks are big right now as well as your traditional desk," said Thomasset.

"The beauty of Baru and using that platform is you go and pick a sit-to-stand desk, and you have a 600-square-foot studio apartment, and you need it to fit there. You have the ability using augmented reality to scale that piece. Then that goes to a manufacturing partner.

Customers can use an AR app to visualize furniture in their homes.

"Say the order comes in from San Francisco, it goes to a manufacturing partner in the Bay Area. The materials are shipped to them. They take their CNC and their excess CNC capacity and they machine those parts, and then we have white-glove delivery that comes and picks it up."

Thomasset comes to this project with a long history in woodworking, cabinetry, closets and home office furniture. He launched his first home office furniture line shortly before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

"I had already done home offices," Thomasset said. "Actually we started a website years ago – homeofficefurnishings.com – in 1999 and really started marketing in 2000 and 2002. Then shortly after 9/11, that business really took off for all the wrong reasons because all of the people that were displaced out of the Twin Towers and Lower Manhattan were basically working from their homes. This is a different reason but it’s very similar."

He says that typical customers today are talking about dealing with children kept out of school and at home and trying to fit remote working and homeschooling efforts into a home that wasn’t initially designed for that. In some cases, spare rooms and even garages are being repurposed as office spaces.

"They need something besides the kitchen table where someone is trying to eat breakfast and you’re trying to do a conference call," he said. "It’s not working out."

Thomasset has been enthusiastic about CNC technology for a long time, having gotten his first CNC machine more than a dozen years ago.

"We’ve had CNC in the shop since 2007. I started using automated cabinet software, Cabinet Vision, in 1995," he said. "The CNC has been awesome."

But not everyone was as immediately enthusiastic about CNC.

"I saw the value in automating being a small shop. I had some convincing to do with my partner because he’s a builder, and he’s not in the shop manufacturing," said Thomasset. "I think the real selling point was all the areas where a person was going to a machine and doing a manual setup, for ripping, for crosscutting, and basically it was a panel saw, rip, crosscut, to a boring machine, and all the setups to do – end boring, face boring, and mid boring. If something went wrong and you had to go repeat a part, in other words, make that part again, you’d have to go through all those setups again, and make sure you are right on that same digit. It became very obvious that it was going to be quicker, better, and with less effort (with the CNC)."

He purchased his CNC in 2007 and then immediately ran into the Great Recession. He says he had no regrets about making the purchase then.

Most of the HelloBaru designs are assembled with Lamello Cabineo fasteners.

"It saved our bacon because we started machining parts for larger companies who hadn’t automated and who had downsized but still occasionally were getting these big commercial jobs. I suddenly realized that getting paid for every piece every time, and if there were two more pieces I got paid two more times. It was a good way to hedge my bets on making money on the projects."

The Baru project has accelerated recently not only powered by the pandemic lockdowns, but also by new recognition from major tech players. "We were listed on Google’s internal internet as a preferred vendor for cabinetry and office furnishings," he said. "Where a lot of people are working from home, people are thinking about it now."

The augmented reality feature of the program is very appealing to people who want exactly the right fit in their home.

"Let’s say you have two windows in your apartment and you want that piece of furniture to fit right between those two windows," he explained. "You’ll go on the app, look at desks or home office furnishings. You’ll pick a style you like, and then it opens up in the augmented reality space within the platform, and you’ll see that model against the wall. Then you’ll have the ability to hit plus or minus and you’ll be able to stretch it to fit within the space. You’re also able to change through the various materials. It’s automatically priced on the web."

Once a customer selects and sizes their piece and goes through checkout, the order is processed and a partner manufacturer is located in the same region as the customer.

Using Cabinet Vision software, Thomasset makes parametric changes to the piece to match the customer’s request and outputs a manufacturing file to be sent to the partner shop that will actually make the piece.

"It doesn’t interfere with their current databases, which is beautiful," says Thomasset. "It just looks at the machine instruction for the machine sitting on their shop floor."

It’s a golden opportunity for shops to use excess capacity on their CNC routers. The program is designed to work with three-axis, nested based CNC routers.

Thomasset knows from personal experience how much the potential for excess capacity is with modern CNC routers.

"My CNC is my ATM machine," he says. "I’ve had that machine since 2007, so 13 years. There’s a clock on there that counts just the hours that the spindle is spinning and cutting wood. I’m at just under 2,000 hours, which is a 40-hour week for one year. So, my machine has been sitting idle for 12 years. Now we all know about loading and unloading and there’s other parts of the process, but it’s dramatic. And that lies in every shop that has one."

As the Baru project scales, Thomasset says, the ideal model would be to buy 20-hours a month from each of the regional partner manufacturers who would get guaranteed payment for that time when their machine would otherwise be sitting idle.

As it grows, it might even morph to justify dedicated personnel in those shops. The manufacturing partner doesn’t pay for materials or engineering time, just using their excess CNC capacity and their edgebander.

In most cases, the shop would assemble and deliver or turn it over to a delivery/install service. Some larger pieces such as armoires would be shipped flat and assembled on site. The furniture uses Lamello Cabineo connectors for the knockdown pieces, which Thomasset says are very strong and easy to use.

"They’re great. We can put them in at the shop. They’re plastic, there’s no pins sticking out, no scratching. And very strong. Impressively strong. We’ve given it the lateral squat test to see if we could make a table implode. I try to design to prevent that."

Current participating shops are in Los Angeles; Portland, Oregon; San Francisco; Madison, Wisconsin; Boston; Washington, D.C.; and New York. One challenge has been ensuring supply chain coverage to all of those shops for the specific materials required in the HelloBaru catalog. But coordination between manufacturers and regional distributors has helped work through that.

HelloBaru had a booth at the huge Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, which gave it a publicity boost.

A big selling point is the delivery of these custom furniture projects in two weeks or less.

To keep to that schedule, Thomasset has been scrambling to vet shops to become new manufacturing partners. Eventually, they want to spread the model worldwide, he says. The same distributed manufacturing model could also expand beyond cabinetry and furniture to other products including 3D printing.

But in the current mode, Thomasset sees plenty of demand just for home office furnishings. "For every cabinetmaker out there there’s going to be some exposure to the home office furnishings market," says Thomasset. "As kids are staying home, they’re going to need homework rooms." He says there will be opportunities in home office builds, home conference room lighting, and a variety of home and garage renovations.

Shops interested in becoming manufacturing partners for HelloBaru can contact Leland Thomasset directly at taghkanic@comcast.net or phone him at 845-855-5018.

Watch a video showing how Baru’s augmented reality system works:

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editor of FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.